Where's the Whiskey? This has become a common mantra uttered at Ethanology. The quick and dirty answer? It’s in the ground. We have been lucky enough to contract with local farms (shout out the the Shooks and Boyers on this one!) to grow the raw materials necessary to make alcohol, and we are getting pretty excited about this year’s harvest. We are fortunate to have proprietary access to the only 90 day blue corn in existence (still not sure how we got so lucky on this one). We are expecting to harvest soon, the wet fall has pushed back our expected harvest in early November by several weeks, which at first bummed me out terribly… however was quickly remediated by the delivery of 1000 lbs of lovely white grape skins out of the blue (yes folks… grappa is in the works… and I feel fairly confident that its fucking delicious).
This is where things get confusing for people, so the purpose of this blog is really to hopefully shed a little light on how whiskey/ey is born and why we don’t have one yet (these things take time). Let’s start with a fun fact, the Federal Government actually makes the rules for defining a whiskey, and has it listed in impossibly small print in several difficult to find and vague locations…shocker, I know. So here it is: Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whiskey and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof). That’s a lot of language to describe a few simple things… again, I know this is shocking from the government. Here’s the most important parts:
These are the three things that all whiskey has in common. Beyond this, the government has at least 41 different delineations to specify everything from bourbon to scotch to straight to blended, these go on to be further separated and classified. Some common differing factors include, length of time in a barrel, what type of wood, and geographic location. For instance, contrary to popular belief, a Scotch Whiskey can absolutely be produced in America… we just can’t call it that, so we settle on a label like “single malt” or one of dozens of other designations.
Given all this information, I am now able to more accurately answer the original question, where’s the whiskey? Once our corn is harvested, I will need time to develop a recipe in order to decide at what proof (remember it just has to be somewhere below 190) things taste best… tasting will be rigorous and exhausting I’m sure… Once this recipe is developed I can create something commonly called “white whiskey”, which depending on the source you ask is not even a real designation. It is called white because the spirit is clear instead of brown. Brown color comes from oak exposure, or added synthetic caramel coloring if you cheat... and yes folks, this happens a lot, it doesn’t even have to be stated on the label in some cases. I can say 100%, for sure, this will never occur at our distillery while I am still sucking air. Next our whiskey will enter a brand new charred American oak barrel, an important distinction if we decide to make this product a true bourbon (along with a few other specifications like distillation proof and mash bill make-up), and it will need to take a nap there for at least 6 months most likely. This designation is mandated by the federal government and helps to protect the integrity of the bourbon industry in America. In addition to this minimum 6 month aging, the intention for this product is to be transferred and finished in our barrels previously used for our distilled honey (is your mouth watering yet). It is highly likely that this will be for at least 2 years (I know, this is a big bummer). However, it will ensure a lot of complexity in the product, and also add another possible designation “straight”. Straight is a type of whiskey that must be aged in uncharred or previously used barrels for a minimum of two years. I can’t say with absolute certainty what the final product designation will be, as my goal is to create the best possible product, not necessarily a product that fits nicely in with narrow definitions.
All this being said, an aged whiskey is at least a toddler away. As a brand new company it is impossible to open with a brown product unless it was purchased from another source and re-branded (which isn’t inherently bad, just sort of crappy if the company brands it as their own) or the distillery was in production long before it was open to the public (possible… but not usually financially feasible). Good things take time... cliché yes, but true. I feel hopeful that this product will be worth the wait.
For the ultimate spirit geeks out there, I encourage you to visit https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/bam/chapter4.pdf ...a great read if you would like to promptly fall asleep, or learn more about the products you are spending your hard earned green on.
So…Michigan’s first ever craft spirit festival happened! Even more exciting is that we were in attendance. Our company seemed to be well received, our booth was busy, and we met a lot of really awesome people. All in all this event was a complete success. So why has it taken me so darn long to write about it?! Well, I would like to say it is because I have been busy, but actually the last few weeks have slowed a bit, which has allowed me to do some human things, like eat three meals a day, shower on a regular basis, and sleep… glorious sleep. The truth is, I haven’t written about it because there was something fundamentally disappointing that I have had trouble shaking.
I have always been bull-headed, my mom is a good testament to this, and because of this I have always wanted to do things that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to do, simply because they existed. Sometimes I succeeded, more often I didn’t, but never in my life before has my gender been a factor that determined my fitness.
This industry has had so many challenges for myself and my husband, and in the past I have suspected that perhaps an unreturned phone call, an unanswered e-mail, or a snide remark may have been largely due to the fact that no one took us seriously. I never stopped to think that maybe they just didn’t take me seriously, a women. Even as I type this my face is screwed up in discomfort and the words come with difficulty. This shouldn’t matter, but the sad fact it… it does.
This was the rotten apple of the spirit festival for me, this one small thing. The fact that I was referred to as “your wife” more often than necessary, that distillation and technical questions were so often fielded to Nick… even after I had just answered another question… even after I was introduced as the company’s distiller. The fact that I was judged more on my mood and delivery of the information I was giving then the content was so disappointing.
This was by no means a uniform experience, I also met several intelligent, good-natured, and incredibly respectful people, and for this I am thankful. I made friendships that I hope will last a lifetime. I also suspect I made a few enemies, which is the cost of standing up for what you believe in, and worth it in order to create an industry environment to be proud of. I am thankful for all the other female distillers that have blazed the trail ahead of me, I hope I can keep that trend going and make them proud. I am also thankful for all the men in the industry that I have met that care more about what I put into a bottle, rather than what I’ve got between my legs. All in all, I suspect that this will all work out in my benefit, after all, it’s easy to be surprised by someone you underestimate.
It’s officially bred, born, and bottled, and soon to be enjoyed by the masses, or at least a lucky few in Northern Michigan. I could not be more excited about this product… the vodka is good… the mel is special… but this gin, it is truly great. Ever had a moment where you were like “Oh wow, I wish I could bottle this (insert random moment, scent, feeling, whatever)? This is what Northern Michigan summer in a bottle tastes like. Picture running through the woods fast with your mouth open like a crazy person, and that is what we’ve been lucky enough to capture. Please don’t actually do this for comparison, the woods are full of bugs and pointy objects, just drink the gin instead, it’s the same, I promise.
On another linear note, the release of the gin also means gin martinis, also known as liquid badassery. As a survivor of the rigorous and strenuous process of gin martini development, I feel qualified to share that I’m now nearly James Bond status, but will only bring out my assassin skills if you try to order your martini “shaken, not stirred”. Seriously, cut it out people, part of the magic of gin is its delicate top notes, and you will totally destroy these if you go all earthquake on your martini, unless of course you are drinking shitty gin, in which case you are going to want to up the magnitude.
For all the gin haters (it’s okay, we still love you), I also have great news, now that gin is here that means bourbon is next, and this will be something worth waiting for.
When I was a kid, my mother always told my brother and I, if we were honest and told her about the trouble we got into at school, before the administration did, then the punishment would be less severe. I guess this was her way of promoting honesty, and addressing life's failures upfront. Integrity, fairness and honesty have been imbued in me from an early age.
Thus, I must be up front and honest. I fucked up! Well, sort of.
Six years ago when Geri & I conceptualized the Mel, we had more questions than answers. What would it taste like? What would it look like? What exactly would it be? Both of us had our ideas; our desires for the spirit. I mean, you can't go out and buy a fucking bottle at your local grocer. There are only five distilleries in the world that make this shit, and six years ago we knew of only one.
So... we started to create this product in our heads. We wanted an extraordinary spirt. The color had to be golden, like dripping honey. The mouthfeel had to be viscous; rich. The finish had to be distinct. The flavor? It had to be perfect! We had an idea of what it might taste like. Subtitle almond, vanilla and leather from the barrel, distinct honey & light caramel on the palate. All of which are logical and educated guesses based on the raw material, proof, distillation and maturation methods. To be frank, we were fucking guessing, and hoping.
To be clear, Mel is all of those things. And so much more! Where I went wrong was the marketing of the product. This is where ideation and pragmatic application failed to coalesce. Building a company from the ground up takes a lot of time. One facet is the creation of each product line and the strategic marketing initiative behind each product. How do you want the world to perceive your product?
Naturally, I thought "Fuck (this word percolates in my head often), we don't have a rum, and never will, so let's market it as our rum replacement." This is where everything went off rails.
Mel is nothing like a rum. In fact, it is a discredit to the spirit to compare it to anything. It is nothing like anything you have ever tried. It is Mel Vocatus! It is fucking amazing in every way, and to compare this to any other spirit in the world would be a travesty. However, human beings need a frame of reference. Thus, I ran with the hashtag #TheRumOfTheNorth.
It is its own beautiful, delicate and perfect creation of nature, and Geri's brilliant mind. There are no comparative adjectives, descriptors or superlatives to share. You must experience it on your own.
I will leave you with one thought...
"Your foreign dram is about to be replaced by a local."
Bad news? We haven’t written in a while. Good news? It’s because we’ve been busy as fuck. Our reception in Elk Rapids has been fantastic. We have had an incredible amount of repeat local support and I simply cannot say how grateful Nick and I are for this. The hugs, laughter, and business have been seriously appreciated, and we cannot wait to foster these relationships further and have so much fun (hopefully) for years to come. All this overwhelming positivity aside I have a few bitches that need to be vented for the sake of my sanity.
The parking. Holy mother of pearl, if I have to answer the rhetorical question “you guys have a parking problem here you know” one more time my head might explode. Yes, we have shitty parking and I know this might sound crazy, but we happen in fact, without a doubt, to be aware of this. We did after all put some thought into purchasing a commercial building and starting a business there over the last 6 years. We are unfortunately not rich, and therefore couldn’t afford the “perfect” space (actually it totally didn’t exist for our needs), so instead chose to go with a space where the water quality would be the best for our product. That being said… you got into the building to ask the rhetorical question, so clearly you found parking, walked or biked… you got here. We are working on this problem and have had a plan for over a year, however again… we aren’t loaded and don’t have investors so for the time being we are hoping people will continue being creative. Also, shout out to Elk Rapids Physical Therapy and Fischer Insurance for allowing after hours parking at their spaces, you guys are fucking awesome neighbors and we are so lucky to have you! Cheers.
Not Tipping. People… this is 2017 in America, EVERYONE who has not been raised by wolves knows that tipping is a customary process for service industries. If your service was not satisfactory by all means, the tip is optional, and please let us know so this mistake doesn’t happen again and we can apologize… however, I am here all the time making sure things go well… and my employees are fantastic and bust some serious ass (one of them wearing a pedometer put on over 3 miles behind the bar)… given this information I am fairly certain your service was great, and you are in fact just being a cheap ass. Tip your service, or you can fully expect me or Nick to come directly to you and ask for an explanation (which can prove quite embarrassing), because despite being paid well, our employees deserve every penny of their tips, and we support them 100%.
Blatant assholery. We have received a multitude of reviews, most positive (thanks guys we appreciate the love) some critical (thanks also, we can only get better if we know what we could be doing better), and a few downright mean (fuck right off). I feel the need to address the review recently that called our patrons “baboons” and stated that everyone who comes here has “stolen wealth”. This is completely unacceptable, and you sir must truly be a miserable human being. You don’t have to like my product, my service, or my building, but you will respect the other people that choose to. It’s a shame you spent all your time making assumptions and judgments, if you allowed yourself, you might have had a good time with everyone else. By the way, nice work assuming I don’t live here, I’m local asshole, and my husband was born and raised here (and a 3rd generation local business owner in the area). How sad for you, but if you choose to come back I will gladly accept your apology, give you a hug, and hopefully share some laughs.
So that concludes this public service announcement. I hope it was informational and at least mildly entertaining. I hope everyone is having a fantastic and safe holiday and doing their part to keep the local watershed clean (seriously quit pooping in the lake people)… no one likes poop in their whiskey. Cheers and thanks again so much!
Well, we are open for business. Holy moly, what a crazy, wild, sketchy-ass carnival ride it’s been (the kind that you know is going to be a lot of fun, but you might die on). We made it, all limbs intact, only slightly skinnier and more sarcastic than ever.
Jesus. What a ride. I will tell ya’ I never thought it would be this difficult, mentally and physically. Six years ago, when writing the business plan, and the beginning stages of our branding strategy, I never knew how true our mission statement would prove to be. Most notably the last two sentences.
It has been a long and challenging journey for the Ethanology partnership. For years, we have existed as an island. We wore independence like a badge of honor and proudly and accurately stated “Nobody gave us a damn thing.” I don’t think I have appropriately emphasized what a long journey it has been, perhaps too long for two people to handle on their own. Simply stated, we were running on fumes and needed help.
Bewildering as it is to me, help has come to us mostly where it was least expected. People have showed up on their own precious time for the promise of cheap beer and mediocre pizza to clean, assemble, construct, troubleshoot, educate, and support us. Thank you seems incredibly inadequate, but thank you and free hugs are all we have to give out at the moment. Elk Rapids and the surrounding communities have been so accommodating and kind, I am so grateful to have landed here and I cannot wait to give back.
More good things to come, very soon.
Remember that last entry about my first day and how it was borderline magical? Here was an additional post called "day two" that never actually made it to the page because of the following three week event streak from semi-hell that ensued starting the day after.
Here I am again at the new office, it is nearly 5:00 PM and I am trying to quickly write another entry, under slightly different circumstances. I am still listening to the hum of the CIP machine, but now I am hastily eating cheezits out of a beaker as well, as my morning was rather busy and I missed my lunch.
Since 8:00 AM in addition to normal happenings, I have managed a plumbing leak in the bathroom, manually moved 4 very large tanks (shout out to my hand truck!), fixed my centrifugal pump that air locked twice due to my electrician doing some unintentional meddling, hauled 60 gallons of hot highly acidic solution by hand 2 gallons at a time…twice… due to said air lock… sprayed myself in the face accidentally from a dropped hose 3 times, and tipped over $50 worth of sanitation solution and watched it literally go right down the drain. There was proficient use of the F word, and it wasn’t my most shining moment, however, thanks to safety goggles, rubber gloves, and sheer will power, I arrived at 5:00 intact and almost everything got done. At the end of the day, even a semi-crappy day, it is still better than working for someone else, and I am still smiling.
I should have taken my beaker of half eaten cheezits and got on the next plane to Jamaica… mmm rum.
I feel the need to simply arrange the last two weeks into neat points as to not drag this post on to Greek tragedy lengths.
Today is the very first day that I can legally distill in Michigan. Sadly there is nothing tasty coming off the
parrot just yet, as there is a lot of prep work yet to do. However, the important thing is, I now can, and will be very soon producing delicious imbibery to infuse into the masses (or at least those willing to spend some time at the tasting room). The journey has been a seriously harrowing one these last few years, but now the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel is shining on my face, and I could not be more excited.
It’s the first real day at my office, and I am working to speedily write this entry before the end of my CIP cycle. I could not be more thrilled to be so busy, and I am really looking forward to the next six months, fully knowing that commodities like sleeping and eating will probably be at a shortage for me, a small price to feed my soul. I know in my heart this is what I was meant to do, even though when people ask “how does one become a distiller”, I still can’t give them a straight answer. The journey to this point has been a strange and winding one, and days like today when skills I learned in my previous careers as a
dental receptionist, administrative assistant, a waitress, and a nurse ...seemingly unrelated industries... come in to play, I am not surprised as I believe all of these things (even the bad ones) were meant to prepare me for exactly where I am. My sister told me today to “have fun, scientist”. I suppose that’s
what I am now, and as I listen to the hum of my centrifugal pump and the noise of continued construction on the building in the background I can’t help but smile and think, my first day at the office is a good one.
This blog is our journey. Distilled.